Lag vs. Frame Rate

Ok, pet peeve time. I promise I won’t do this too often. This will be short and sweet.

It drives me nuts when people use  the word “lag” to describe poor frame rate.

Lag is entirely network related. Most likely all causes of lag are outside of your direct control.

Frame rate is entirely hardware related. Most likely all causes of poor frame rate are within your direct control.

If you get long pauses in gameplay and then everything catches up, that’s lag. The latency between yourself and the server is too high, and information is taking too long to get from one to the other, so the game may “re-sync” everything and you suddenly find yourself in a situation you were not in a mere second earlier. Rubberbanding (where your character snaps back to a position they were a second before) is also related to this. If your frame rate drops when there are too many FX on the screen, that -might- be lag, but it most likely is a frame rate issue. I say “might” because all those FX are coming along with the data packets of what those FX are doing in the game, and losing one or several of those may cause your game to hiccup in such a way that it simulates poor frame rate.

If your frame rate drops when you turn on a graphic effect like shadows, anti-aliasing, or anything else that’s a client-side visual option, then you are likely not seeing lag, but seeing a frame rate “hit” because your hardware isn’t up to the task asked of it. If you have a rock solid frame rate and you go to a busy area with a lot of characters and a high level of graphic detail, and your frame rate drops, that’s not lag, that’s you asking your video card, processor, and memory to do more than it is designed for and thus instead of serving you 60 frames of graphical goodness every single second, it has to work harder and only deliver you 20 frames per second. (Note: with all the characters milling about in the above scenario there may be some lag sneaking in as well, as you are getting constantly updated on their position).

So how do you fix it when you have lag or poor frame rate? Well, there are two different answers, depending on which you have.

Lag may be entirely out of your direct control. It has a lot to do with internet routing and the speed of your internet service, how many people are sharing said service, how well the service is run, etc. If you use a cable modem, getting a higher bandwidth connection may help with lag you are experiencing, making sure your DOCSIS on your cable modem is the one recommended by your provider, or simply having a tech come out and make sure your “lines” are “clean” coming into the house. I know that for my cable modem at home, we had too many “splitters” before the cable in from the street arrived at our cable modem, and that caused all sorts of headaches. The tech put in one splitter at the street, ran a brand new cable directly into the modem, and things have been great ever since.

Frame rate is within your control, only you probably won’t be happy with the steps you need to take. First is to reduce the graphic levels of whatever it is you are playing until you get a consistent FR that you like. What you may not like is what your game looks like at this point. In this case the solution is one you need to throw money at. Hopefully a new video card from NVidia or ATI is all you need to solve your problem, but always check the specs. Video cards range in price from $50 to $500, and most of the time you get what you pay for. Many $50 cards today used to be $500 cards about 3 or 4 years ago. If this level of card is all you need to solve your frame rate issues, that’s great.  However, your poor FR is most likely because you have a brand new game and you want it to look like the screenshots on the box. In that case, you are looking closer to the $500 cards.

Always be wary of buying a bleeding edge card if you are not building a system around it. Power usage, card size, and motherboard/CPU are all things you need to take into account. If your power supply can’t bring the juice, you won’t even be able to boot your system with that card in it. If the card is literally too big to fit in your case, you will be a sad panda. And if your motherboard/CPU are woefully out of date it won’t matter how awesome that card is, you are still limited and will need to upgrade that part of your computer as well.

Now in closing, I don’t expect to win in my crusade to get people to say what they mean when it comes to the visual performance they are seeing, but if this article educated just ONE person in the difference and they stop using the word “lag” to mean a problem with their video hardware, then I can sleep a little easier.

12 Responses to “Lag vs. Frame Rate”

  1. Catwhoorg says:

    If the card is literally too big to fit in your case, you will be a sad panda.

    Been there, done that, was a Sad Panda.

  2. Balorn says:

    Being a techie, this is one of my pet peeves as well. I even wrote a “guide to lag” on the CoH forums ages ago that explained the difference between network lag and low framerate (I described it as “system lag” since it also includes things like long zoning times as it loads a new area from the drive), and what you can do about each. Sadly, it isn’t there anymore.

    One thing worth bringing up that isn’t mentioned here is that adding RAM can also help with responsiveness in games, especially when your video card doesn’t have much itself. When your video card runs out of memory to store different textures it has to use system memory. This causes a performance hit but all things considered it’s not too bad on most systems made in the last decade (AGP or later). However, if you then run out of RAM and it has to start using virtual memory (for anything, not just textures; lots of textures can make the RAM fill up faster though) then things can really slow to a crawl. Upgrading from 1GB to 2GB a few years ago had a noticeable effect on game performance for me (including CoH).

  3. Lemmo says:

    You guys are a bit too close to the flame. In English, the word ‘lag’ means to slow down. In a literal sense, if someone’s computer is lagging, but their network connection is not, they are still speaking correctly.

    That being said, your explanation for how to recognize computer lag versus network lag for the layman is invaluable advice, so thanks for that.

  4. Samuraiko says:

    *grins* How ironic that this is your topic the day that my new video card arrives and my husband’s computer gets a MAJOR upgrade. :) At this point, whether it’s lag or frame rate, it’s gonna be a lot less!

    And thanks for the explanation on the difference – I hope that this gets reposted to the CoH forums in the tech section (possibly as a sticky) to help the newcomers understand what is in their control and what isn’t.

  5. BigFish says:

    Why would this be a big pet peeve? Could it be because that if the blame can be put on the consumer’s computer it makes you feel better? “It’s not my fault!” syndrome LOL

  6. Overdose says:

    I completely agree with this article 100%. It is a pet peeve of mine as well. some people do understand the difference, but i frequently see people referring to graphic lag as network lag…. when i know they do that it drives me nuts..

  7. Manoa says:

    Great article! It’s non-jargony enough that anyone can understand the difference, but it isn’t *too* dumbed-down where it comes across as talking down to non-tech readers.

    Though I have to say that the article probably won’t help anyone from Justice from asking BABs whether or not “Costumes cause lag.” The old school Justice Hami Raiders will never let that old joke die…plus, BABs’ reactions to the question are always quite amusing. If you ever see someone from Justice asking BAB that question, know they very likely do know the difference and are asking it just for the entertainment value of seeing his reaction. ;)

  8. Ura Hero says:

    And then there are times when lag is outside of everyone’s control such as when a completely new virus hits the streets. Not a lot you can do when all the bandwidth is being sucked dry by a leech.

    Good article. One point to make is that if you have an issue, the best thing to do in any game is file a ticket. The support folks may drive you nuts with stuff to check, but in the end they will usually get the problems solved if you stick to it and give them the info they need to help you.

  9. Texas Justice says:

    Well, Manoa already beat me to the punch line. Because everyone on Justice knows, Costumes Cause Lag.

    Need proof? (NSFW)


  10. WHTJunior says:

    Technicalities aside, I think that the pet peeve stems from the avaerage end user doing the finger pointing most of the time. Where we might understand that the word Lag can be used in normal language to refer to multiple things, I am not sure that many of the people crying, “LAG!” in online games are aware of this nuance of the English language. The primary offenders are people who claim they are getting tremendous amounts of lag, while everyone else seems to be fine. They will then badmouth the game either to their friends or on the site’s very own forums. So, while we could all specify which form of lag we are getting, it really comes down to who is blaming whom for their troubles, and whether that blame is valid, especially if they are the only ones experiencing it.

    That having been said, I am definitely having frame rate issues these days, what with the City of Heroes Ultra Mode enhancements. I feel that my video card is fine, as it shows me the updated graphics fine. My processor is now 5 years old, however, and I feel that it is the area that I need to focus most on. I am at 2G memory as well, which could use a bump, but that requires removing the cards I currently have and replacing them outright. For that, I would probably rather just get / build a new PC and start over.

    So, for anyone confronted by a person who is crying “Lag!” just think about whether they are just making a comment, or if they are blaming someone else for their woes. The answer might either help you understand that it’s no big deal, or help you understand why others might be peeved, depending on the crier.

  11. Skip says:

    Something that helps immensely when educating people about lag vs. frame rate is the ability to see what’s going on in each area. In City of Heroes you have the command “/netgraph 1″ that will show you what’s going on in the network, and “/showfps 1″ or “/graphfps 7″ to show your framerate. (That last is an I17 command, so it’s only on Test at the moment – try the other numbers too.) Whenever I start to get “lag”, I’ll turn on netgraph to see if that’s really the problem. If nothing looks odd there, graphfps is useful to see what’s happening to my framerate while I’m roaming around various zones.

  12. awesome says:

    Sorry, but as a post earlier says, the word “lag” means slow down. Sooh, this article is based upon lets say – poor choice of words.

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